Working on a musical during previews can often be a horrible experience, but Kathie Lee Gifford, the librettist, lyricist, and producer of Under the Bridge, is relishing every minute of the process. "This is my first musical," says the former talk show queen, "so to me every little change is major, but our cast and crew have told me that the show is in great shape -- and I'm the one who's suggesting most of the changes." What happens when other people suggest changes? "This is truly a collaborative musical," she says. "I learned a long time ago to choose my fights, so if it's changing a word or two to help an actor, or moving scenes around, I'm more than willing to try."
The musical is based on the award-winning children's book The Family Under the Bridge, about a Parisian hobo named Armand (played here by Ed Dixon) who unofficially adopts a homeless family. But Gifford stresses that this is not a children's show. "I heightened and deepened the book to make it a full-fledged adult musical," she tells me. "This is really Armand's story, about a man who doesn't know what he doesn't have until he finds it. I went very Dickens and far less Disney than people might expect from someone like me -- or what they think I am. I'm a far more serious person than I was allowed to be on television every morning."
Gifford is already working hard on two other new musicals, both of which have serious subject matter. Hurricane Aimee, which will premiere sometime next year, is an ambitious biomusical about the legendary evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. "For the past 30 years, I have thought that Aimee was the most fascinating person on earth," Gifford remarks. "In fact, I dated one of her grandsons, and my husband Frank actually went to her church as a kid. When he met her, he had a very visceral reaction. The question most people have about Aimee is whether she was a true woman of God or just a hell of a woman, and my feeling is that she was both. But I think people are far more interested about the men in her life than her miracles."
Playing Aimee will be the extraordinary Carolee Carmello, for whom Gifford has endless praise: "She is a diva without divaness, the consummate professional and a wonderful wife and mother. The show was originally written with two women playing Aimee, one at ages 17-25 and the other from 25 until her death at age 54. But when Carolee read the script, she asked me if I would reconsider writing it for just one actress. Even though it took me four years to get the book into the kind of shape I was happy with, I was willing to rework it for her -- and the difference has been amazing."
The second new musical, In Canaan's Eyes, is about two American soldiers -- one from a poor family, the other from a rich one -- who meet in the Army during World War II. "I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and start writing songs for this," Gifford says. "I can't sleep anyway because of menopause, so the hot flashes should be good for something!"
As for the critical response to Under The Bridge, which officially opens at the Zipper on January 6, Gifford says: "I'll be happy with fairness. I hope that critics judge the show on its merits and separate it from me -- but the reviews that ultimately matter are from the people paying for tickets, and we've already been getting a tremendous response." Plus, she's received some very special praise from a source closer to home: "My son Cody is 15, and he's at the stage where I can do nothing right. But after he saw the first preview, he called me to tell me -- three times -- how much he loved the show. Next to Ben Brantley, that's the best review I can get."
COME TO THE CABARETS
You don't always have to go to Broadway to see and hear Broadway performers; this month, Manhattan's many cabaret venues are hosting a particularly large number of Main Stem veterans. The hilarious Jason Graae and the sensational Jana Robbins are both at Helen's, performing their respective solo shows, Coup de Graae and The Gypsy in My Soul; Alice Ripley and Marcy Harriell will star in The Lyrics of Bill Russell at the Duplex on December 13 and 20; and former Dreamgirl Terry Burrell is part of the talented quartet bringing Timeless Divas to life at the Triad through December 20.
On December 19, Laura Benanti, Jenn Collela, Christopher Sieber, and Anne Runolfsson (who recently joined Phantom as Carlotta) will be among those participating in Miracle on Lafayette Street, a benefit for God's Love We Deliver at Joe's Pub. And Lauren Kennedy, Matthew Morrison, Andrea Burns, Keith Byron Kirk, and Julia Murney will join composer Georgia Stitt (a.k.a. Mrs. Jason Robert Brown) at Birdland on December 27.
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY BABY
Many an up-and-coming actor has come to the attention of audiences in the long-running Forbidden Broadway series, and Ron Bohmeris no exception, having performed in the show's 1986 edition. But few performers return to FB after actually starring on Broadway, as Bohmer is doing in the new Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater. "I would often run into [director/writer] Gerard Alessandrinion the subway, and I always told him to I'd do it if I was between shows," says Bohmer, who starred earlier this year in The Joy of Sex at the Variety Arts and Of Thee I Sing at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
As it happens, Bohmer will be parodying three shows that are very near and dear to his heart. The first is Fiddler on the Roof, in which Bohmer made his Broadway debut as Fyedka in the 1990 revival. "For a goyim, I've got a lot of Fiddler in my life," he notes. "It was even the first show I did in college! I haven't seen this production yet but my Alfred Molina comes from his appearance on the Tony Awards, the cast recording, and even a bit of Doc Octopus. I always try to get the essence of a person and then crank it up a couple of notches past reality."
Making fun of The Phantom of the Opera was a little disconcerting initially, since Bohmer has played the title role all over the country: "It was hard for me to make it funny at first, because I have such a set idea of who he is. But I finally realized that once you've lavished a thing with love, the best thing in the world is to be able to tear it up." The same sentiment applies to Les Misérables, in which Bohmer played Enjolras on Broadway for two years. "I couldn't do my own part because there was too much dialogue for me to learn in such a short time," says Bohmer, who joined the current Forbidden Broadway show during previews, "so I am playing Jean Valjean. I have to say, my favorite thing about ripping Les Miz is that it truly was the longest show ever. At 10:30 at night, all the other shows were getting out and I was still on that barricade thinking, 'I'm never going home.' In fact, I lived in New Jersey when I was doing the show, and I could never catch the last bus!"
FEIN AND DANDY
Michael Feinstein's annual holiday show at his namesake club at the Regency is always a big deal, so it's no surprise that the house was packed to the rafters last Tuesday for his opening night. Joining in the merriment were the dynamic Michele Lee (who told me that she's spending the holidays performing her nightclub act in Florida), daytime diva Eileen Fulton, TV star Tom Arnold, and singer Monica Mancini (who earlier that day earned two Grammy Award nominations for her CD Ultimate Mancini). Also present were a quartet of songwriters whose works Feinstein performed: Fred Travelena, John Bucchino, and the legendary Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
Fans of old-time Broadway braved the rain on Thursday to attend the signing of the recently released DVD of Broadway: The Golden Age at Tower Records. They were well rewarded with the presence of Barbara Cook (who will return to the Café Carlyle in April), Patricia Neal, Carol Lawrence, Sally Ann Howes, Jane Powell, and director Rick McKay.
A veteran star-gazer like myself isn't easily impressed, but literally bumping into Al Gore at the December 5 matinee of Gem of the Ocean is one for the books. Judging by the audience's excited reaction to Gore's presence, most of the crowd was clearly from the Blue States, and both the former Vice President and wife Tipper Gore were extremely gracious to the well-wishers. They also seemed to love the play.
[To contact Brian Scott Lipton directly, e-mail him at BSL@theatermania.com.]